Taylor Swift’s “Look” is No. 1. But will it last?

Why Taylor Swift’s New No. 1 Is Her “Ballad of John and Yoko”

Why Taylor Swift’s New No. 1 Is Her “Ballad of John and Yoko”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 8 2017 12:56 PM

Why Taylor Swift’s New No. 1 Is Her “Ballad of John and Yoko”

Taylor Swift in the video for “Look What You Made Me Do”
“Look What You Made Me Do” was perfectly calibrated to be a ginormous hit, but statement singles don’t usually last.

Still from “Look What You Made Me Do”

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Two weeks ago, when America’s inevitable next No. 1 song dropped like a meteor in the Great Lakes, a college friend posted on my Facebook wall begging for help. “How do we feel about the new Swifty single?” she implored. “Tell me how to feel!”

I don’t blame my pal for being confused. So is everyone about the song that launched a thousand takes. But am I any better equipped to help my friend sort her feelings about “Look What You Made Me Do”? Within days—hours—she could have had all the guidance she needed on how to feel about the year’s most overexamined three and a half minutes of music: pro, con, meh, judicious, disappointed, and, of course, Trump-obsessed.

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Now that the decade’s least surprising chart-topper has fulfilled its destiny, crowning the Billboard Hot 100, does anyone want yet another pop nerd’s opinion? I mean: Why is this song No. 1? Because it’s from Taylor Swift, the one-woman Super Bowl of Pop.

Since my editors surely want more explanation than that to earn my keep in this long-running chart-analysis series, let me try to add something to a conversation that has already gotten so old we’ve already moved on to scrutinizing Swift’s next single. Because when it comes to “Look What You Made Me Do,” now comes the “take” that really matters: the lukewarm take. Swift’s “Look” came in hot, but only when we become detached enough from the cultural whirlwind of its arrival that we can cool off a bit, and finally examine it as a song qua song, will we know its actual pop legacy.

First we should try to agree about just how big a blockbuster “Look What You Made Me Do” actually is. When you break down the song’s data, Swift’s numbers in all three Hot 100 components (streaming, sales, and airplay) are most impressive—even the elements that are not actually record-setting.

At least one data point probably should be a record: Billboard reports that the song was streamed 84.4 million times in the U.S. last week. That’s the highest weekly stream total for any song in more than four years—and it would be the highest-ever, period, if not for Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” a song that amassed a fluky 103 million weekly streams in the winter of 2013, the bulk of them from viral fan videos on YouTube. Arguably, then, Swift’s “Look” is the most-streamed song ever not fueled by a viral video meme. (This from an artist who was off Spotify for most of the last few years—“Look” is basically the first time in the streaming era Taylor has fully competed for streams with a new single.) Not that “Look” was a slouch in the video department: In its first day, Taylor set a global record for a lyric video, before premiering her official, high-budget clip at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The glossy, snarky “Look” video then set one-day global records both for a Vevo video and a YouTube video. U.S. views of these videos all contributed to her near-record in weekly U.S. streams.

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Then there’s sales. Even if she’d stayed off Spotify and skipped shooting a video, buck-a-song downloads alone probably could have gotten “Look” to No. 1. The song rang up 353,000 copies in its first seven days, at a time when chart-topping hits routinely sell less than 200,000. While that’s the best sales week of the year, handily beating the opening week of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” by more than 100,000 copies, it’s far from a record: In 2015, Adele sold three times that amount in the opening week of “Hello,” and in 2014 Swift herself sold more than a half-million copies of “Shake It Off.”

Finally, airplay. Swift’s hit has already amassed an audience of 64 million, good enough to rank 14th in U.S. airplay after just over a week at radio. Again, not a record: In its first full week, “Shake It Off” amassed 71 million in radio audience, and “Hello” grew to 73 million, both enough to rank among the 10 most-played records in their respective weeks. But “Look” is getting more than its share of spins. All of these elements combined to make “Look” an easy No. 1, stopping Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” at a record-tying 16 weeks at No. 1. (As I predicted.)

So, bottom line, “Look What You Made Me Do” makes a grand entrance. Does that make the song an actual hit? Numerically, sure—but does this pre-sold performance bear any relationship to the song’s quality, not just as enduring art but even as durable commerce?

In the short term, it’s possible Taylor felt she needed to gin up this much controversy. She’s coming back to a chart landscape far more hostile to her gender than that of two or three years ago, when 1989 was commanding the radio. Remarkably, more than eight months into 2017, Swift’s “Look” is the year’s first No. 1 song by a woman, any woman, in either a lead or featured role. As I reported earlier this year in my piece about the chameleonic Bruno Mars, pop music in the second half of the ’10s is utterly dominated by dudes. The data is unmistakable, even as the reasons continue to puzzle chart observers: Men, and male-driven genres like rap and electronic dance music, do better on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music and, hence, better in a music industry now dominated by streaming; whereas the late ’00s and early ’10s, dominated by the 99-cent single, were better for female-driven pop genres.

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So let’s at least credit Taylor with market savvy. Her fanbase would have bought anything she released, but dropping a battle-ready beef track provided an extra layer of insurance in the Drake-and-Bieber era. She’d already been moving in this direction, anyway. Three years ago, when the wickedly clever “Blank Space” was on top, I argued that Swift was gradually becoming Kanye West, a half-decade after the VMAs incident that entwined their careers. (Little did I know how Kanye would later complicate that narrative over their shared fame.) She then went from satirical to savage on “Bad Blood,” picking a rap-like beef with a fellow pop star, and commissioning a remix of the single with an actual rapper, Kendrick Lamar. So, commercially, a song as pushy and confrontational as “Look What You Made Me Do” was the next logical step.

But taking the long view, Swift surely has her legacy in mind, too, especially after winning two Album of the Year Grammys. The question is whether she’s going about it in the right way—there are few reliable blueprints for a star in her position. Spare a thought for the pop deity following up a career landmark: Fleetwood Mac in 1979; Prince in 1985; Madonna in 1986; Michael Jackson in 1987; Guns n’ Roses in 1991; Nirvana in 1993; Eminem in 2002; Adele in 2015. Followups are always hard, but I’m talking about a specific class of challenging followup: the blockbuster-maker’s statement immediately after the career-defining landmark.

Some of these artists stuck the landing better than others: “Raspberry Beret,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “November Rain,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “Lose Yourself” are all worthy heirs to “When Doves Cry,” “Like a Virgin,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “The Real Slim Shady,” respectively. But what these acts had in common, at this dizzying career juncture, was self-consciousness so extreme they felt the need to comment on their personae in the music itself. In many cases, they appeared to have lost their marbles: On Around the World in a Day, Prince had conversations with God, flogging himself for his public lewdness. On Bad, Jackson begged to be left alone while devoting a video to his tabloid coverage. On Guns’ two-part Use Your Illusion, Axl Rose literally invited magazine editors to brawl with him. On Nirvana’s In Utero, Kurt Cobain poked fun at the profitability of teenage angst. Even the most anodyne blockbuster followups are laced with self-consciousness: On 25, “Hello” is another of Adele’s heart-rending post-breakup songs, but it’s also basically a winking apology for making fans wait half a decade for a sequel to 21.

So while critics complain, not unjustly, that Taylor Swift’s media narrative is overtaking her art, she’s in good company. Following up a work as huge as 1989 would make most artists a bit mad: Prince’s cuckoo chat with God becomes Swift’s batshit answering-machine message. Of course, Taylor being Taylor, she’s kicking things up a notch, not only (if the cover art for Reputation is any indication) theming her entire album around her media coverage, but making its lead single all about her beefs. This sets her apart from most of the megastars I noted above, who generally buried their complaints on deep album cuts and leading off their album campaigns with songs not exclusively about themselves. (Well, other than Eminem, whose lead single from The Eminem Show, “Without Me,” was shamelessly solipsistic, like so much of his work.) Mostly, the superstars’ opening singles played it straight: Madonna’s “Live to Tell” was a cinematic torch song, Adele’s “Hello” read as a lovelorn ballad, and Fleetwood Mac’s priapic “Tusk,” even if it involved renting out a stadium and a marching band, was about bigness (and budget) but not the band, for a change.

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What makes “Look What You Made Me Do” bizarre as a commercial prospect, therefore, is that Swift went with a fight-picking “statement single” to lead her most anticipated album ever. Statement songs like these are generally not lasting hits. In 2006, the Dixie Chicks, three years after their George W. Bush imbroglio, led off their next album with the wounded, bilious “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The song won them a pile of politically motivated Grammys, but on the radio? Country stations (actually hoping to welcome the Chicks back after their undeserved ’03 banishment) took the hint and mostly ignored the song, as did pop stations, and it spent one week in Billboard’s Top Five driven entirely by digital sales to supportive fans. A year later, “Piece of Me”—Britney Spears’s post–nervous breakdown, chin-out dare to the press—won critical acclaim and the VMA for Video of the Year, but the single barely scraped the Top 20, dragged down by minimal airplay. In 2010, Swift’s nemesis Kanye West commented on their VMAs run-in the year before with “Runaway,” calling for a “toast to the assholes” like himself. The song led off his most critically acclaimed album but was a radio nonentity, spending a single week in the Top 20 fueled by digital sales before plummeting. Indeed, expectations for statement singles are so modest in the industry that Kesha’s current single “Praying”—a soul-baring spiritual ballad eviscerating her producer and accused tormentor Dr. Luke—is surprising on the upside by doing halfway-decently on the charts. It’s only gotten as high as No. 22 on the Hot 100 thus far, but that’s better than many expected it to do, and it is a medium-size radio hit.

I keep bringing up radio, because it’s the truth serum of hit determination. Anything can sell or stream well for a month or two to the rabid fan or curious onlookers. But radio programmers exhaustively research the songs we’re willing to digest perpetually as background opiates. The songs that graduate into “recurrent” or “gold” rotation are the ones that build legacies.

This applies to all pop acts, even the biggest band in the world. Consider “The Ballad of John and Yoko”—basically the Beatles’ 1969 equivalent to “Look What You Made Me Do.” The most media-narrative-obsessed song John Lennon ever wrote, it was tossed off so fast only he and Paul McCartney played on it. It chronicles Lennon’s efforts to marry Yoko Ono, flying to a string of countries while overleaping paparazzi and bureaucratic red tape, and settling scores (Axl Rose–style) with Fleet Street scribes who didn’t appreciate the power couple’s mattress-based protest gestures. “The Ballad of John and Yoko”—one of the most self-absorbed, narrowly focused singles ever issued by a major pop act—was also wickedly catchy and a smash, making the Top 10 in America and reaching No. 1 in England, despite a radio ban by the BBC for its blasphemous (and self-pitying) refrain, “Christ! You know it ain’t easy.” It was on and off the charts in two months, and its radio legacy is modest for a Beatles hit. Last year, Nielsen reports “John and Yoko” was played just under 1,000 times on U.S. terrestrial radio. That’s not awful for a song about John Lennon’s ancient grievances with reporters and bureaucrats, but it’s lame for a Beatles hit; the most-played Fab Four song on U.S. radio in 2016, “Come Together,” was played more than 17,800 times, or about 18 times the spins as its 1969 contemporary. Nielsen reports “Ballad” as the 38th most-played Beatles radio song. That’s about as good as a statement single does in the long run, and mostly because it’s the Beatles.

What will be the long-term fate of “Look What You Made Me Do”? Not even the biggest Swift stans are calling it Taylor’s best song, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a decade from now—assuming terrestrial radio still exists—it’s Taylor’s “Ballad of John and Yoko,” her 38th most-played hit.